BMO Mortgage Special

March 17th, 2012 by Potato

I’ve been scratching my head about the BMO special since the first iteration in January.

It’s puzzling because it seems so unprecedented: I can’t recall the banks openly competing on price this much before. I can think of a few reasons for it, but those don’t give me much comfort in the motives:

1. BMO is willing to trade margin for marketshare. This could work long-term for them, since many of these customers will renew in 5 years with BMO at higher spreads, but aggressive banks aren’t comforting. There’s a reason we like to comfort ourselves with the image of the conservative Canadian bank. There are news reports that BMO has been losing market share, which could explain this push to take it back, but desperation is no better a trait than aggression in a bank.

2. It’s about funnelling people into fixed rates. The 2.99% special is a lower rate than their (posted) variable-rate mortgage, and only a few basis points above a discounted variable. Maybe they saw something they didn’t like about Canadians’ abilities to handle future rate increases on variables, and BMO is trying to stabilize the portfolio at the expense of margins and shaking up the market. On the one hand, that could be seen as being relatively comforting: distressing that they got worried, but comforting that they’re taking steps to mitigate risk to rate changes. On the other hand, the fixed rate funnel also means that they have now lowered the qualifying rate from ~5.5% to ~3%, and if they needed to take that step to get people to qualify, I quake in fear. OTOH, the 25-year amortization suggests they’re not trying to scrape the bottom of the barrel.

3. It’s about the lack of features. Combined with #1 (adding business down the road), the lack of prepayment means people won’t take as much advantage of the low rates to pay down principal, so upon renewal they’ll get a larger mortgage (or more certainty of that larger mortgage) at the new rate.

On a systematic level, I don’t know what to make of this policy. It could help stabilize the housing market, or contribute to the last hurrah of getting marginal buyers in. For BMO, it could be a shrewd long-term move, or an act of discounting desperation. It’s a puzzler.

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